Why Taxpayers Are Getting Burned by Climate Change

Demonstrators march to the Forward on Climate rally to call on President Obama to take strong action on the climate crisis on February 17, 2013 in L.A. | Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
Demonstrators march to the Forward on Climate rally to call on President Obama to take strong action on the climate crisis on February 17, 2013 in L.A. | Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

It was as if Bill McKibben orchestrated it.

Mere days before the galvanizing founder of 350.org led more than 40,000 climate activists to rally around the White House in opposition to the controversial Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report explicitly detailing the fiscal challenges that climate change is bringing to the United States.

Implicitly the report also makes a compelling case that a lethargic White House and Congress are largely responsible this mess.

A on the Washington D.C. protest report from KCET's "SoCal Connected" on Tuesday, February 19, 2013.

Jolting politicians out of their somnolent state is what the Forward on Climate protestors hoped to accomplish by descending on Washington on Sunday, January 17 (and by holding solidarity rallies simultaneously across the country, including a major one at City Hall in Los Angeles). The organizers wanted as well to crack the cone of silence muffling any sustained national dialog about our future on this warming planet.

Of course, the political institutions are not the only entities that need to wake up and tune in: Check out this sample of snoring headlines that greeted the GAO's game-changing report:

Much more accurate would have been this top-of-the-fold header: "While Washington Fiddled, Earth Burned"

Its accuracy is ramified in the GAO's careful accounting of the enormous costs bound up with our leaders' refusal to acknowledge, let alone address, the interlocking dangers facing the U.S. (and by extension the globe).

In straightforward prose, made all the more chilling for its matter-of-fact tone, the GAO noted that "climate change is a complex, crosscutting issue that poses risks to many environmental and economic systems -- including agriculture, infrastructure, ecosystems, and human health -- and presents a significant financial risk to the federal government."

Those risks are being manifest everywhere, regardless of physical location, economic activity, or demographic characteristics. Some communities will suffer more as a result of punishing storms, wildfires, or rising sea levels. Some industries will prove more vulnerable; some people -- notably the poor and marginalized -- will bear a disproportionate burden, an injustice of unparalleled dimension.

Story continues below

Accelerating these pressures on public health and well being are the related stresses to the "many of the physical and ecological systems upon which society depends," to air, water, and soil, those essential building blocks of all life on Earth.

These risks are well known, or should be. What makes the GAO report compelling is its tight focus on how these threats are intensifying what it calls the federal government's "fiscal exposure."

Consider that the United States government owns a staggering 650 million acres, roughly 30 percent of the nation's land area. These public properties include military facilities, national forests, parks, and refuges, historic landmarks, office buildings, and post offices. What will it cost to mitigate or adapt these many sites?

How much will we need to spend to elevate bridges or heighten levees or buttress jetties or construct new storm water systems or other infrastructure? In 2008, for example, "the National Intelligence Council judged that more than 30 U.S. military installations were already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels," a situation that has not improved since then.

No more stable or prepared are such federal dollar-dependent industries as agriculture. Part of its subsidy comes in the form of crop insurance, a price-stabilization scheme that has cost billions in the past but which will surely soar as climate regimes continue to gyrate. Note that in 2007 the GAO warned the Department of Agriculture about the troubling risks that climate change posed to the Federal Crop Insurance Program; the agency has not yet reported to congress on its long-term exposure.

Then there is the anticipated spike in outlays associated with federal disaster-relief. Between 2004 and 2011, for instance, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has obligated more than $80 billion to assist states and communities to recover after hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fires (among other forms of devastation). As the GAO observes, this figure does not include the recent allocation of $60.4 billion to help the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast pick up the pieces in the splintered aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

The Star Jet roller coaster remains in the water after the Casion Pier it sat on collapsed from the forces of Superstorm Sandy, February 19, 2013 in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. | Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The Star Jet roller coaster remains in the water after the Casion Pier it sat on collapsed from the forces of Superstorm Sandy, February 19, 2013 in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. | Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

If that single catastrophe generated such damage (not all of which will be rectified by what is a relatively small number of dollars), how much more funding will be required to "build a more resilient Nation prepared to face both current and future challenges, including a changing climate"?

This financial reality may beggar the imagination, but that is not the worst-case scenario. Inaction now will produce even higher costs later, an assertion that comes with this added worry and warning: "given the government's precarious fiscal position," the GAO asserts, it will be "increasingly difficult to manage given expected budget pressures which will constrain not just future ad hoc responses but other federal programs as well."

The implication is clear: the deliberate refusal of the GOP to face up to climate change's powerful impact, the dithering of those Democratic politicians who refused to stand up to Republicans' ideological lock-down on global warming, and the citizenry's complicity in this scandalous political situation that it daily reinforces through unrestrained consumption of fossil fuels, has exacerbated our ability to prepare for the storms -- meteorological and economic -- to come.

To jump-start our adaptive strategies, the GAO has proposed that the federal government ramp up its technical ability to predict where and how climate-change vectors will impact our lives. It has also suggested that Washington escalate its support for the development of new satellites to track climate patterns, refine the transmission of such data to state and local governments to insure the development of more effective policies, and to improve FEMA's ability to assess damages real and potential so that "so decision makers have a comprehensive view of overall funding claims and trade-offs."

What the GAO does not say, and cannot given its statutory obligations, is that the citizenry must demand these modest and more radical changes in governmental decision-making if we are going to have a chance to sustain our communities, homes, and futures.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) speaks on the steps of L.A. City Hall during the Forward on Climate rally to call on President Obama to take strong action on the climate crisis on February 17, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. | Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Rep. Henry Waxman hammered this point in his speech at the large solidarity rally in Los Angeles. "We've seen climate change coming for a long time, but now it's here, and it's getting worse faster and causing greater harm than we ever expected. There is simply no more important fight for the future of our children and grandchildren," the Westside congressman declared, which underscores why "we must call for forceful action by the federal agencies and pressure Congress to start listening to the scientists."

Securing science and scientists that hearing, argued Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who attended the anti-Keystone AL rally in Washington, will require breaking the fossil-fuel industry's death-grip on climate-change deliberations inside the Beltway. "I think the polluting industries pretty much have Congress locked up in terms of being able to do anything on our own. That's one of the reasons today is important -- because it reflects the voices of people across the nation that they're fed up with the barricade in Washington and that this is an issue that can't be overlooked."

Making this case loud and clear were the tens of thousands of protesters in the District of Columbia, whose resounding chant echoed off the walls of the White House: "We are unstoppable; another world is possible."

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading